Sunday, June 17, 2012

How Do Mormons Feel About The U.S. Constitution?

The United States Constitution is the single most important document in America. It has historical, philosophical, legal and political significance. Moreover, there is no document like this in the world. As a result, it has evoked many different responses from people all over the world ranging from the positive to the negative. Some people look to the Constitution with nothing but respect and admiration while others look on it with scorn and disgust. 
Many people wonder what the LDS perspective is towards the U.S. Constitution since Mormons were not always treated well in American history and were denied the protections it promised in the document. Although the LDS faith was not in existence when the Constitution was drafted, Mormons are well known for their patriotic dedication to the Constitution and the founding fathers: 
Latter-day Saints have long been regarded by people outside their faith as among the most patriotic citizens of the nations in which they reside. Nowhere does this perception exist more strongly than in the United States of America. Yale University humanities professor Harold Bloom is typical of non-Mormon intellectuals and academics in his description of Latter-day Saints as the "most American" of all religions (The American Religion, Simon & Schuster, 1992). During the 20th and 21st Centuries Latter-day Saints have typically been over-represented among U.S. Senators, Representatives and Governors.
And yet, there were no Latter-day Saints among America's "Founding Fathers." The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was founded on 6 April 1830, a full 54 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and 43 years after the Constitutional Convention of 1787. There were Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Quakers, Dutch Reformed, Lutherans, Huguenots, Methodists and even a Unitarian and a few Catholics among the nation's Founding Fathers... but there were no Mormons.
Nor did the Founding Fathers have the opportunity to join the Church when it was finally organized in 1830. All but one of the Founding Fathers had died by then. Charles Carroll of Maryland was the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence to pass away: on 14 November 1832. He was a 93-year-old Catholic living in Baltimore, Maryland at the time the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was organized, and he died before Latter-day Saint missionaries went to his city.
Suffice it say, Latter-day Saints did not have an opportunity to participate in the founding events of the new nation, and the Founding Fathers never had the opportunity to become Latter-day Saints. (How the Founding Fathers would have viewed the Saints is another question altogether. Over 90% of the Founding Fathers remained faithfully within the denominations of their birth throughout their lifetime and never converted religiously.)
Despite the fact that the religion was not in existence when the Constitution was created, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints think highly of the founding fathers and the Constitution.
Latter-day Saints today regard the Founding Fathers as among the most important, most ethical individuals in history. They believe that the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution are divinely intended documents which were "inspired" (although not the revealed Word of God in the same sense as the New Testament and other scriptures). 
Why do Mormons revere the Constitution? It can be traced back to Joseph Smith. If he were alive today, he would be considered a strong conservative and most likely be labeled a T.E.A. patriot due to his love for the U.S. Constitution. As a result for his love and devotion to the U.S. Constitution, the Prophet outlined the Church's belief regarding governments and laws in general and it become part of LDS scriptures in D&C 134.
However, Joseph Smith and subsequent LDS Church leaders have taught that the U.S. Constitution is a divinely inspired document which is a concept that is rarely taught at any educational level including law schools:
The idea of an inspired Constitution is rare in contemporary public discourse and wholly absent from contemporary constitutional and historical scholarship. Seeking to discern the hand of divinity in America's beginnings, however, was once common not only in popular rhetoric but also among eminent nineteenth-century historians such as George Bancroft. Perhaps even more important is the repeated acknowledgment of divine aid by America's founding fathers. Notably, George Washington frequently expressed gratitude to God for felicitous circumstances surrounding the rise of the United States and chose the occasion of his first inaugural address to recognize the providential character of the framing of the Constitution:
No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the invisible hand which conducts the affairs of men, more than the People of the United States. Every step by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency. And in the important revolution just accomplished in the system of their united government, the tranquil deliberations and voluntary consent of so many distinct communities, from which the event has resulted, cannot be compared with the means by which most governments have been established, without some return of pious gratitude, along with an humble anticipation of the future blessings which the past [blessings] seem to presage [W. Allen, ed., George Washington: A Collection, p. 461. Indianapolis, Ind., 1988].
LDS teaching and revelation are in harmony with this self-understanding of the founding generation. Latter-day Saints believe that the Lord established the Constitution, not by communicating specific measures through oracles, but by raising up and inspiring wise men to this purpose (see D&C 101:80). This emphasis on the extraordinary character of the American founders—and perhaps, more generally, on the founding generation as a whole—accords with assessments by contemporaries, as well as by later students of the period. Thomas Jefferson, then U.S. ambassador to France, described the Constitutional Convention of 1787 as "an assembly of demigods." More than forty years later, Alexis de Tocqueville, the noted French observer of American society, included the American people as a whole in his praise of the founding:
That which is new in the history of societies is to see a great people, warned by its lawgivers that the wheels of government are stopping, turn its attention on itself without haste or fear, sound the depth of the ill, and then wait for two years to find the remedy at leisure, and then finally, when the remedy has been indicated, submit to it voluntarily without its costing humanity a single tear or drop of blood [Vol. 1, p. 113].
This understanding of the divine inspiration of the Constitution as mediated through the human wisdom of the founders and the founding generation invites the inference that new needs and circumstances might require the continued exercise of inspired human wisdom by statesmen and citizens alike. LDS leaders have taught that the Constitution is not to be considered perfect and complete in every detail (as evidenced most clearly by its accommodation with slavery, contrary to modern scripture; e.g., D&C 101:79) but as subject to development and adaptation. It was part of the wisdom of the founders to forbear from attempting to decide too much; they therefore provided constitutional means for constitutional amendment. President Brigham Young explained that the Constitution "is a progressive—a gradual work"; the founders "laid the foundation, and it was for after generations to rear the superstructure upon it" (JD 7:13-15).
While Mormons believe it to be a divinely inspired document, they do not believe that it is a perfect document. Joseph Smith himself stated that the Constitution was imperfect. Not only do Mormons believe the Constitution to be imperfect, but it is not be given the same kind of respect and reverence scriptures get. Dallin H. Oaks, a well known LDS lawyer and one of the leaders of the LDS Church explained that the U.S Constitution is not to be considered the same as scripture
Reverence for the United States Constitution is so great that sometimes individuals speak as if its every word and phrase had the same standing as scripture. Personally, I have never considered it necessary to defend every line of the Constitution as scriptural. For example, I find nothing scriptural in the compromise on slavery or the minimum age or years of citizenship for congressmen, senators, or the president.
Rex E. Lee, another well known LDS Lawyer and prominent Constitutional scholar explained that while the U.S. Constitution is a divinely inspired document, it is not a divine document like scriptures are:
That is, from the general label "divinely inspired ," some assume that the Constitution is tantamount to scripture, and therefore perfect in every respect, reflecting in every provision and every sentence the will of our Heavenly Father, just as is true of the Book of Mormon or the Doctrine and Covenants. That view cannot withstand analysis. Our Constitution has some provisions that are not only not divine, they are positively repulsive. The classic example is contained in Article V, which guaranteed as a matter of constitutional right that the slave trade would continue through at least the year 1808. There are other provisions that are not as offensive as the slavery guarantee, but they were quite clearly bad policy, and certainly were not divinely inspired in the same sense as are the scriptures. Moreover, regarding the Constitution as tantamount to scripture is difficult to square with the fact that our republic has functioned very well, probably even better, after at least one of its original provisions (requiring United States senators to be elected by their respective state legislatures rather than by the people at large) was amended out of existence by the Seventeenth Amendment.  
As an attorney and as someone who enjoys politics, I am aware of the different perspectives that people have towards the Constitution. Some people view it as a perfect and infallible document while others believe it to be a very flawed, unfair, and incomplete document. I believe that Mormons have a unique, pragmatic, patriotic yet realistic view of the U.S. Constitution and that this document is significant in LDS theology. What is even more interesting is that despite how Mormons were treated in early American history, we have always kept a positive view of the Constitution. 
I hope this short little blog will be helpful as voters continue to learn about Mitt Romney. I believe what I have outlined here reflects Mitt Romney's beliefs about the Constitution since it reflects the majority of the LDS perspective towards that document. Moreover, Mitt Romney has a legal background since he obtained his law degree and business degree from Harvard. 

1 comment:

  1. By way of information for your readers, it should be pointed out that Rex E. Lee, quoted above, is the father of current U.S. Senator Mike Lee of Utah.